The Role of Sanctions in Democracy Promotion: The Case of Zimbabwe

Sanctions have long been at the core of the international community’s promotion of democracy in Zimbabwe. Following the introduction of sanctions targeting key members of the regime in 2002, the desired improvements in human rights and democracy have been absent, despite reduced violence surrounding elections in recent years.

In February 2013, a large proportion of the E.U.’s sanctions were removed, suspending sanctions against 81 individuals and eight companies. Sanctions against ten individuals and two companies based in Zimbabwe remained. In early February, the European Union further removed sanctions against eight individuals in Zimbabwe’s military and political elite. Currently the only sanctions remaining are against President Robert Mugabe and his wife, who remain under an asset freeze on wealth held in the EU and are also banned from traveling to the European Union. Zimbabwe itself remains under an arms embargo and arms supplier Zimbabwe Defense Industries is also under sanction.

With Mugabe enjoying his 34th year as President, the decision by the EU to move away from sanctions demonstrates an admission of their ineffectiveness. Despite their use, Mugabe has retained power even though he was subject to criticism following his recent re-election in August 2013. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed voting was marred by widespread vote rigging and challenged the results in court with little effect. United Kingdom Foreign Minister William Hague noted that he had ‘grave concerns’ about the election. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared, ‘Make no mistake: in light of substantial electoral irregularities reported by domestic and regional observers, the United States does not believe that the results announced today represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people’.

Rather than an indication of democratic improvements in Zimbabwe, the easing of sanctions suggests that attempts to isolate Zimbabwe and target its elites have failed. Although violence surrounding elections has been reduced there can be little claim of democratic improvement. Instead the move away from sanctions is part of a reduced focus on Zimbabwe by the international community. The European Union has shifted its focus to supporting state-building efforts in Somalia, whilst the United States now places a much greater emphasis on counter-terrorism in Africa.

The United States Government however continues to state that it has no plans to loosen its sanctions until democratic improvements are seen, and has also banned Mugabe from attending the U.S.- Africa Leaders Summit in August. In contrast, the European Union’s decision to invite President Mugabe to April’s EU-Africa summit in Brussels represents a shift away from sanctions and potentially a new era for E.U.-Zimbabwe relations.

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2 Responses to The Role of Sanctions in Democracy Promotion: The Case of Zimbabwe

  1. Good post Callum. In addition to the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions in promoting democracy and human rights, I think they have, however inadvertently, allowed Mugabe to deflect both domestic and international criticism of his own disastrous economic policies. The president regularly blames western sanctions for the economic woes of the country, rather than admitting that domestic policies are also a significant part of the problem. If sanctions were absent, would it Mugabe be held (even a little) more accountable? Just a thought, or a false hope.

  2. cjforster says:

    I think that’s a good point re. sanctions being used as a means to deflect criticism, especially domestically.

    Here are two interesting follow up pieces on the wider issues from my original piece.

    The UK-Zimbabwe relationship

    Criticism about the ending of sanctions, ‘EU slammed for forsaking democratic hopes of Zimbabweans’:

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